Polish strikes put new bite in grain embargo

The labor unrest in Poland is casting the embargo of US grain shipments to the Soviet Union in a different light for some of its critics. Many United States farmers and grain traders continue to catalog the woes visited on them by the Jan. 4 agricultural trade restrictions.

But several of the US farm organization spokesmen who in the past have insisted that the embargo has not hurt the Soviets now say that even relatively modest cutbacks in Soviet meat production resulting from the embargo could prove significant.

They argue that because the Soviets will not be able to spare food for pacifying striking Polish workers, the shortages and protests could spread.

US Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland spoke of how Poland has added to Soviet problems when he defended the embargo before the Senate Banking Committee last week. He testified that after earlier modest effects, the embargo led to drops in Soviet meat production of 11 percent for June and 15 percent for July compared with 1979 figures.

Mr. Bergland said, "It must be a sobering experience for the Soviet leadership to reflect on how long their citizens will be willing to wait for meat on their tables which their counterparts in Eastern Europe are already enjoying."

"It is noteworthy," he pointed out, "that in Poland -- where meat consumption amounts to 72 kilos (28 percent higher than in the USSR) -- a wave of strikes and work stoppages over increased meat prices is sweeping the land."

Mr. Bergland added, "It is not inconceivable that the Soviets -- who know far better than we do the weaknesses and shortcomings of their system -- might decide that living with the suspension is just not worth the price. We hope they would come to that conclusion soon."

US Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Dale Hathaway recently assured soybean processors that "the embargo has been effective in achieving the goal intended -- to deliver a rebuke to the Russians, to frustrate their plans, to worsen the discontent of the people there, to embarrass and inconvenience their leadership."

Reflecting the administration's present calm aproach to the embargo, Eric Hirschhorn, deputy assistant secretary for export administration in the Department of Commerce, said that "we didn't ask for this [Afghanistan] problem, we only reacted to it, and we hope that they [the Soviets] will do what is necessary to end the embargo."

The embargo's sternest farm-belt critics attack the measure for ruining US farmers this year and wrecking long-term export prospects, but add that Mr. Carter must make the final judgment because "only the President can fully assess the strategic national security picture."

A grain analyst at the Chicago Board of Trade voiced the mixed feelings stirred up by the embargo when he explained that grain dealers here would like the Soviet grain embargo lifted. They feel the embargo has "seriously damaged our image abroad as reliable suppliers." But they also believe that ending the embargo "would be seen around the world as a sign of uncertainty, vacillation, and poor leadership," and finally conclude that the embargo must continue in order to "show our dedication to principle even if it costs us money."

No one any longer disputes that the embargo has cost the Soviets money. To make up for the 17 million tons of US grain cut off by Mr. Carter's embargo, the Soviets have replaced roughly half that shortfall with grain from Argentina and other countries. The Soviets have paid higher prices for the replacement grain. They have paid higher shipping costs as well. And, according to European grain experts, the Soviets pay in a third way because smaller shipments coming at times that suit their new suppliers have tied Soviet port, rail, and storage facilities in knots.

There is no such certainty about the embargo's cost to US farmers, shippers, and dealers -- or to the government agencies involved in redirecting embargoed grain. But present higher grain prices may cancel most of the embargo-related losses that occurred earlier this year. The higher prices have resulted from unexpectedly high world demand for grain and from reduced US grain production due to this year's drought.

Some US analysts both inside and outside government maintain that the embargo has resulted in a good balance for US farmers: prices driven high enough to give farmers a fair return, but not driven to dangerously high levels by competition between Soviet cattle and American consumers for a smaller-than-expected crop.

At the Board of Trade in Chicago, one spokesman explained that the Carter administration's arguments "are considered here impelling reasons for continuing the embargo." Dealers are reassured by the fact that a preliminary round of talks has taken place in Paris between US and Soviet officials to lay the groundwork for a new agreement to replace the five-year agreement which expires Oct. 1, 1981.

The embargo as a political issue appears to be steadily declining in importance.

Midwest governors, meeting in Chicago this week, did vote overwhelmingly to condemn the grain embargo. The only dissenter in the predominantly Republican group, Kansas Gov. John Carlin, abstained.

But, according to House and Senate aides dealing with the embargo question, most farm-belt congressmen have stopped calling on the President to lift the embargo, easing their earlier pressure on Mr. Carter to resume grain sales.

The aides expect whatever heat remains in the embargo issue to disappear by the time the next presidential term rolls around, no matter who wins the election.

One congressional staffer explains the embargo is a dead letter at home because framers are getting the prices they want. And a dead letter internationally because "I don't think the Soviets would humble themselves to ask the US to make more grain available, and I'm sure the President wouldn't authorize exports in any case."

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